Friday, June 6, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #23: GODZILLA (1998)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ blog Proton Media, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!

LUCA:

This movie wasn’t necessary.

Well, no movie is necessary in the strictest sense, but this one really puts its ankles into its own obsolescence. Where GOJIRA was the primal scream of a nation suffering decades-long unimaginable horrors finally finding release in a silly little monster picture, Roland Emmerich’s GODZILLA was the primal scream of one man getting back at a couple of movie critics who were mean to him. Michael Lerner as “Mayor Ebert” and his assistant Gene bumblin’ and stumblin’ through the movie seems to be the only subtext GODZILLA has going for it. America was never victim to any worse radioactivity than Three Mile Island, and this particular Godzilla is spawned by French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Sure, there are some French stereotypes walking around in the movie, but they mostly act like cannon fodder for the third act chase sequence. So here we have a Godzilla movie from the POV of a nation neither the victim nor the perpetrator (in this case) of atomic aggression. Well, not all good Godzilla movies need such commentary, so I’m sure there’s a lot of fun monster smashing in this one, eh? How about a subplot about a reporter trying to catch that ONE BIG STORY but is being held down by Kent Brockman himself cuz she’s a woman? I swear, it at least took Toho a couple of movies to start throwing in filler non-Godzilla related plotlines.

It’s not helped by the fact that pretty much all the actors are mugging like crazy. Not only does it feel like TV, it feels like pre-Sopranos TV. Pre-Sopranos network TV. Matthew Broderick, an actor I hold no specific ill will towards otherwise, is stuck delivering speeches about the majesty of Godzilla, or the extinction level event that will occur once Godzilla spawns, but it all has the gravitas of an IT guy telling you you might want to turn it off and on again. Maria Pitillo? Never act in another movie, this one! Jean Reno does okay with (again) the nothing role he’s given. He’s sort of a badass? But because this is JURASSIC PARK you can’t really shoot any of the dinosaurs? At least he gets to grouse about YUCKKKK AMERICAN COFFEEEEE

And yes, this is JURASSIC PARK! Emmerich totally took the visual language of the biggest dinosaur movie in history and produced a dumb knock-off of that. That, more than anything is what’s so insulting here. Let’s be honest, Godzilla movies are more often than not, less than great/good/contain 60% new footage, but they do have their own charmingly dumb vibe. Emmerich totally approached this with a “Ha ha I know what ze Hollywood wants!” attitude and turned it into a big T-Rex movie. You know, I think EmmerichZilla even looks kinda cool! I have no problem with the design! But it’s basically nothing more than a “T-Rex rampages through NY and then there’s a raptor scene at the end as these things have” movie. In fact, once they first start fleeing from the Minillas, and bar themselves into a room, my partner actually went “Surely they wouldn’t dare…”. I asked what she meant, and it turns out she really expected the movie to have raptor-evading in a kitchen for its third act. How did you re-appraisal for GODZILLA IN NAME ONLY GINO go, Travis?

TRAVIS:

Before I get into how GODZILLA fails as a Godzilla film, let me delve into why it simply fails as a popcorn flick. Say what you will about how dumb INDEPENDENCE DAY (Emmerich's previous film) is, but it's a fun, bombastic kind of dumb that knows how to hit the right notes with audiences. The grand images of the immense alien spaceships dwarfing cities around the world effectively sells the scale and enormity of the threat, while the plot lines of the various characters across the US struggling with the invasion gives us a sense of the panic everyone's swept in. In GODZILLA, people are of course fleeing when Zilla stomps around, yet for the most part, the citizens of NYC don't seem particularly alarmed by the presence or consequences of a radioactive dinosaur tearing up the town. Now, you could process this detachment as Emmerich's commentary on the "seen it all" attitude of New York (similar to how blasé residents are around the strange alien behaviors in MEN IN BLACK), but it doesn't convey the danger that should be felt in your average disaster movie. An appearance of an anomaly like Godzilla has potential Earth-shattering consequences, and we still have scenes of people packing into diners or clogging up traffic trying to re-enter the city. The monster is no more a nuisance than cockroaches and taxi drivers.

The broadly written protagonists don't help this matter either. They're pretty much reduced to one comedic trait that gets repeated over and over again. No one gets Tatopolous's name correct, Hank Azaria and his wife are NEW YARKAHS, the soldier has a stuttering problem, etc. You're right, Luca. This is 90s sitcom acting! Barely sketched out roles aren't new to Emmerich's stuff, but at least he's been wise to cast charismatic actors like Will Smith, Mel Gibson, and Kurt Russell to sometimes alleviate it. Reno seems to be having the most fun in GODZILLA, even though his open mouthed gum chewing and Elvis impressions support that odd FUNNY FOREIGNERS humor that creeps up in Emmerich's movies (it's even odder since he's German; does he think it appeals to American audiences?). And despite the awful jokes, it's a little comforting for the SIMPSONS fan in me to watch Azaria and Harry Shearer do their best with the material (Nancy "Bart" Cartwright makes a cameo too!)

But let's examine THE performance of the film – the big G himself. Over the course of these reviews, we've discussed what qualities make up an enjoyable G movie. Luca, you began this article by explaining how there isn't a real point to GODZILLA, and that ultimately is the biggest problem with the movie: Godzilla does not stand for anything. This version of G may have been born from French nuclear testing, but he doesn't represent science terribly left unaccounted or nature wrathfully exacting revenge. Even when he's been a silly superhero, he's the world's defender when it needs protection from forces too powerful to handle. Whether the situation is dramatic or a farce, Godzilla has always been at the heart. What is he in this American version? An accident that needs to be taken care of. He comes ashore; he's killed by our missiles. Life goes on. Did this monster ring hollow to you too, Luca?

LUCA:

Boy, did he! I’ll be nice and mention a thing I did like: the build-up at the start with the Japanese fishing trawler and the trail Godzilla leaves throughout the Caribbean is pretty effective. It’s exciting and portentous and gets you all hyped for what’s coming. Then, of course, Emmerich undercuts Godzilla’s appearance by focusing on a hobo gone fishin’ who is mocked by his hobo friends for never catching anything. Some levity to undercut upcoming tension/danger is great, but let it be somewhat ironic or related. Let it be an asshole who gets stepped on by Godzilla! Nope, a poor doddering old homeless man who is mocked for never catching anything then scampers away as Godzilla rises up, destroying the pier. The shot is so emblematic of this movie’s problems. It’s a dumb, unfunny, one-note comic relief character running away from CGI mayhem and ending up unscathed. So there’s bad humor, no physicality to the spectacle, and not even the base pleasures of death and destruction for entertainment.

Emmerich must have gotten his subtexts mixed. Majestic Godzilla dying at the hands of the human military in a tragic conclusion to his rampage is right out of the KING KONG playbook. But it doesn’t work cuz Godzilla didn’t connect with any humans previously (unless you count staring at Matthew Broderick for a few seconds as connecting). He’s not even a “natural” animal, he’s a mutation from atomic testing by a government that doesn’t seem TOO concerned about him. I’ll be generous and say the scene where Godzilla walks into the trap to eat the military’s fish is also halfway successful. David Arnold, while no Akira Ifukube, does a good enough John Williams imitation to lend the moment some gravitas. Tellingly, Zilla doesn’t really interact with anything throughout this scene.

What interaction Godzilla does have with the world as presented in the movie is smashing an entirely evacuated city and evading the military. Those stakes are far too low for a Godzilla movie with just Godzilla in it! Oh ohhh and you know what I hated??? When they’re running away from the Minillas, Broderick’s Niko Tatopolous inexplicably looks back to see them running and stumbling about. They’re all running for their lives, and there’s absolutely no reason for him to do this. It’s almost as if this is a movie designed to show off computer generated imagery cee gee eye… Well, at least it really has me chompin’ at the bit to get back to Toho!

TRAVIS:

Before we travel back to Japan, I'll admit that the ancillary stuff surrounding the release of GODZILLA was a lot of fun. For a young kaiju fan in the 90s, you couldn't easily find toys and whatnot to satisfy your fix. With the Sony film on the way, Godzilla suddenly flooded the market. I couldn't believe that the local Toys R Us had action figures of Biollante and Rodan! Bookstores had displays of literature that took G from kid storybooks to film/culture essays. Heck, I even remember munching on Eddy's Godzilla special edition ice cream (vanilla with “Godzilla” cookie crumbles! Yum!) Oh yeah, and GODZILLA: THE ALBUM was one of the first CDs I ever purchased. The Wallflowers, Puff Daddy, Jamiroquai, Rage Against the Machine.... What a time capsule for 90s music! G was definitely a hot commodity.

And that may be what doomed this endeavor in the first place: Godzilla was merely a product. Sure, all franchises are company products, and G already had a history of being pulled in commercial directions. Yet without the unique touches that made him memorable, he suffered the homogenized fate many foreign properties endure when chasing popularity in America. The GINO/Godzilla In Name Only moniker isn't just a reaction to his appearance. The remodeled monster before us could run, swim, and burrow in spectacular fashion, but like many newcomers to Hollywood, it cost him the price of his soul.

Overall, GODZILLA made big bucks, but the damage was done. Negative reactions across the board killed G's launch in the US, and the promotional tagline “Size Does Matter” became an ironic statement of bloated hubris. With the third millennium soon approaching, was the King of the Monsters going to begin the next era as a cursed failure? Not if Toho had anything to do with it! It's the dawn of a new age as we return to Tokyo with GODZILLA 2000!

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